Let’s Dish: The Influence Of What Children Eat

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by Amy Flanigan on May 6, 2009 · 23 comments

Perhaps the movie Terms of Endearment delivered one of the best lines regarding raising children, which was “As hard as it is, you end up wishing it were that easy.” Indeed. Needless to say, when my first child was born, time management took on an entirely different meaning. My commitment to making baby food from scratch turned into nothing more than a fantasy.

My mother made everything from scratch. Growing up, I never appreciated the thought, time, and effort that she put into every meal. I never appreciated the whole wheat bread sandwiches, piece of fruit, and crackers that filled my lunch bag; I was always envious of my friends who got Wonderbread, Hostess Cup Cakes, and Doritos. I never appreciated eating bran flakes when everyone else I knew got Captain Crunch. I never appreciated waiting until after dinner to have cookies. No, I never appreciated any of those things. Until now.

There are two rules that I have remained loyal to, even after my second child was born. First, eating dinner together as a family is a must; no television on in the background, no toddler roaming around, and no eating in shifts.

Second, I am steadfast to cook homemade dinners at least five days a week. It is important that my kids know what real food tastes like without the additives that processed foods contain. At three years old, my daughter Haley won’t even eat anything that is processed. (We’re no strangers to Chinese take-out and dessert, however. And if there was a Chipotle within a five-mile radius of our house, we’d be in trouble. Hey, we’re human.)

In some ways, Haley’s refusal to eat anything from a can or box has a downside, like when I’m completely spent and desperately wish I could just throw some frozen pizza bites in the oven. She would have none of that, so I must keep the bar raised even at lunchtime.

But in the end I’m happy that my kids are familiar with non-sugar laden cereal and the like. The bonus is that Haley has developed quite a diverse palette. And so far, her little brother is on the same track.

Chris Berry recently published a great article called “Is My Son The Only Child In America Who Has Never Eaten A Happy Meal?” Regarding his four-year-old son, he writes:

“As Robert gets older, I’m sure it will be harder to control his diet and help him resist the temptations of junk food. After struggling with my weight for most of my life, I’m determined to get him started on a healthier path. As I’ve discovered on my own personal fitness quest, it’s easier to stay healthy when you’re young than to get healthy when you’re old.”

Studies have shown that we tend to repeat the behavior of how we were raised, whether it’s how our parents treated money, spoke to each other, kept house, or how we were fed. What did you eat as a child? And do you think it has influenced what you eat as an adult? For those of you that have children, do you find yourself feeding them the same things you ate at that age?


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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel May 15, 2009 at 10:47 pm

I am blessed with a mother who is an amazing cook, and she made me appreciate fresh food. I never had a frozen meal in my life growing up, but we had a mixture of healthy and unhealthy snacks, and that carried on until adulthood. I make most meals from scratch and I make veggies and snack on fruit, but I also love my junk food. As the “baker” in the family, I bake on average once a week. I have always had a weight problem, but that’s for a different topic. ;)

What’s interesting is that husband came from a completely different household–his mom rarely cooked. She makes a killer meat sauce for pasta, but other than that…microwave everything to death and it was all processed food. When I met him he was very complacent about food, and slowly over the years he’s come to appreciate my meals more and more. We’re still working on it…he can be picky at times so it’s a matter of finding “husband-proof” meals that he never tires of.

Which is one of the many reasons why I frequent this website! :)


Melissa May 10, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Great post Amy. I eat real food because my parents did, for sure. Even though there wasn’t a lot of great cooking going on, they did feed me and my sister decent meat, potato, vegetable dinners. And when we went out to eat it was at a casual dining restaurant, or mom and pop place, but never fast food. I don’t remember ever eating fast food until I was 18. No takeout pizza either, but that’s because they were New Yorkers and Pizza Hut just wouldn’t do in our house. They did buy a lot of soda and chips, but I was never interested in them. Bless my taste buds.

Steve though? I have entirely reversed his upbringing. That’s why I involve his opinion so much on my blog. The circumstances of his childhood meant cheap, processed junk. Now he eats very, very little of that.

Good for you raising your kids the way you are. I have a couple of other friends who do that and their kids, like yours, are developing great palates. It’s a wonderful gift you’re giving them.

And Happy Mother’s Day!


Chopper May 7, 2009 at 7:09 pm

What I really enjoy is exposing kids (in my case, my nephews) to foods they DON’T get at home. From an early age (but old enough that they were able to behave themselves in public) I’ve turned my nephews into hardcore sushi fans, thai food junkies, and gourmet dining aficionados. It’s something their parents don’t enjoy and would have probably never exposed them to. I feel I have done my job as an uncle to give them a little culture and excitement over what they eat. I didn’t learn those lessons until I was an adult, because we ate very traditional foods in my household growing up (meat and potatoes, occasionally pizza or chow mein…but that’s as exotic as it got). What I really disagree with is parents who force their kids to eat what they don’t like (“you can’t leave the table until you finish that”). I had that done to me as a child and it took years for me to get over my dislike of certain foods because of that tactic. Not all vegetables taste good, even if their good for you. My dislikes were canned spinach and canned asparagus…I wouldn’t touch either veggie for many years until I tried fresh and realized they weren’t that bad after all.


Julie May 7, 2009 at 3:58 pm

I am probably in between in terms of what I ate as a child. I clearly remember my mother’s attempts to give us healthy cereals and us dumping a ton of sugar on top. And I will never make Hamburger (or any other sort of ) Helper. And I will never buy Little Debbie Snack cakes as delicious as they were back then. My Mom did cook as much as she had the time and energy for and we sometimes protested that a Banquet potpie would be better. How ungrateful.

My grandmother had a garden though and I can remember bringing home grocery bags of fresh summer vegetables and eating them fresh. Cucumbers peeled, without salt; watermelon; tomatoes like they were apples; bell peppers.

My own kids are what I would consider good eaters, though there does seem to be a magical age (5 years old) when all things look “weird” and suddenly nothing is good with “sauce.” We keep trying; unwilling to give up and just serve fries and chicken nuggets for every meal. Someday she will appreciate that.


Jennifer May 7, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Karen’s comment about Spaghetti O’s reminded me that whenever I was sick as a child, my mom always gave me Chef Boy Ardee to eat. To this day, when I get sick, THAT is what I crave. Also, when I was growing up, McDonalds was a TREAT that we got about once a month (even the dog got a “regular” hamburger). And, to comment on Sara’s “organic” question; no, I don’t think organic existed in the 70′s. I think organic was when we actually picked the pears off the trees at my elementary school. :o)


Jay May 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm

As a child, my “working mom” always made us dinner from scratch. Very rarely did we ever eat something from a box or can. Being from the upper mid-west, she was the “Casserole Queen.”

I learned to cook for myself as a young adult in college. Being a workoutaholic, I was eating 4-5 meals a day. All that food had to come from somewhere. I discovered rather quickly that not only were fresh fruits & vegetables, and cooking from scratch much healthier, but it was also significantly cheaper to buy the “raw” ingredients, than to eat junk food.

Case in point, a friend and I stopped at a grocery store to grab a mid-day snack. I grabbed two bananas and he got a bag of chips. At the checkout line, my total for the bananas was 23 cents. His 4 once bag of chips was 75 cents. (Okay, so this was the ’80s and prices are a little higher now). When he saw how little I paid he stopped, put the chips back, and got two bananas for himself.

Moral of the story…In these tough economic times, it’s cheaper and better for you to eat healthier.


Frannie May 7, 2009 at 3:16 pm

I’m a meat eater now, but I lived a vegan lifestyle for several years. It definitely taught me to appreciate foods in their natural form and I think it’s crucial to help our kids know the same.


Tom May 7, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Wow. I sure hope Jude isn’t losing sleep over the Oreo cookie “incident.” I’m pretty sure it didn’t have a lasting effect on the 6 year old and he’s growing up pretty adjusted.


Sara May 7, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Did “organic” even exist in the 70′s? I remember eating fast food as a kid. Not all the time, but sometimes. And I still learned to appreciate what real food tastes like.

I don’t know about the criminal part from Jude – that seems a bit rough. I agree with Karen and I did read Chris Berry’s article. Lay the foundation of good eating habits and food nutrition, but every once in a while there’s nothing wrong with giving them a Happy Meal.


Carla May 7, 2009 at 12:22 pm

To echo something Jude mentioned – studies have shown that eating together at the table and talking, without any radio or tv distractions, has shown not only greater family bonds, but also higher self-esteem as kids grow. And it doesn’t have to be at dinner time. You can share this ritual at breakfast also.


Patrick May 7, 2009 at 11:52 am

My mom cooked homemade pretty regularly when I was growing up. But everything she made was bland. How many different ways can you bake a chicken? My mom knew. I swear the only spices she ever used were salt and pepper. So when I went away to college, I really expanded my food repertoire, trying anything and everything. I consider myself a decent cook and my kids are aware that salt and pepper are not the only spices out there. They also know that not everything needs to be drowning in ketchup.


Karen May 7, 2009 at 11:24 am

I try to cook every night – Amy’s easy recipes sure make it easier ;-) But in defense of other working or stay-at-home parents, I understand dipping into the boxed meal reserves out of shear exhaustion. I’m guilty of giving my kids a cereal bar for breakfast. Sometimes you just need a break. And everything in moderation is okay. If your kids get spaghetti o’s every so often, it won’t hurt them.


Jennifer May 7, 2009 at 11:12 am

Wow, Ame…you had wheat bread, fruit, and crackers? Hmmm…I got Twinkies, Wonderbread, and potato chips! ;o) Honestly, I remember when grandpa developed diabetes because we actually DID go from Wonderbread to wheat bread and the Twinkies and sugar cereals disappeared from the house overnight! It was a sad day, but in the long run, it made a difference it what I ate as I grew up and as an adult.

The biggest thing that sticks in my mind, however, is that we got TWO cookies for dessert after dinner. Two was the serving, no matter what the package said. To this day, I look at two cookies as a serving. (I’m talkin’ Oreo-like cookies not the HUGE ones from the grocery store bakery section.) Also, we were never made to eat everything on our plates, but we did have to at least TRY everything on our plates. If we didn’t like it, we didn’t have to eat it. Fortunately, my mom was/is a VERY good cook and liked to experiment with ethnic foods made from scratch, so I feel very fortunate to have grown up, and been given the chance, to develop a varied pallet at a young age, which has continued into adulthood.


Amy's Mom May 7, 2009 at 10:46 am

Another great topic, Amy.

I can’t remember a meal my mother made (from scratch) that I didn’t like. As a young girl, she let me make the pasta sauce myself, which I viewed as very special. That must have started my love of cooking. For me, label reading started very early for two reasons. The first was that grandpa developed diabetes long before you were born, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t serve him anything with sugar. Then when you were around two years old and had your first dental visit, I was stunned to learn you had two cavities. So it seems I have been forever aware of all the additives in our food. I once read that if we stay mostly around the market’s perimeter, we will be safer because that is where we find fresh food. A suggestion was given to me to simply put out a platter of healthy snacks (without any fanfare) and let kids nibble when hungry. I followed that advice and transitioned from junk snacks to healthy ones, and there were no more baby teeth cavities.

Amy’s adventuresome spirit has allowed her to experiment with many more tastes and textures than even I have ventured into, and both my grandchildren are developing quite a varied palate at young ages. It is truly amazing. Even if they veer into junk food in their teen years, they will return to “real” food as adults.
I’m thrilled that I have two daughters who share a love of food and cooking and two son-in-laws that appreciate their skills. So, as Mother’s Day approaches, it means a great deal to me that I have had such an influence at the family table. YEA!


Mike May 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

I think what you eat as a child influences you in your early adult years. But as you get older and are exposed to more types of food, you develop your own tastes (as some have already alluded to in this blog). I also think that peoples palettes often become more accommodating as they get older. I know mine did.


Jude May 7, 2009 at 9:27 am

Kudos to the parents who feed their kids made-from-scratch meals…at a dinner table with the family, no less. That’s old school practice, but I’ve read that it creates strong family bonds. Similar to other posts today, my mom did it all: worked full time, volunteered, raised two kids, and somehow had a homemade meal on the table each night. Everything from scratch. Veggies from our garden. That being my basis, I find it criminal that kids are fed chemical-laden, processed foods. I was party to it once – gave a 6-year-old an Oreo cookie. He didn’t know what it was and probably hadn’t had sugar in that form before. I’ll never forgive myself.


Helen May 7, 2009 at 8:05 am

I have picky-eaters at home, which I know I helped create from when they were really young. (I wish your earlier post was around 7 years ago! Better late than never though. Some of your suggestions have really helped with my youngest.) Anyway, it’s so hard to stay committed to serving healthy foods, when I just want my kids to eat anything substantial without a power struggle. I know how important it is though, and I’m trying.


Scott May 7, 2009 at 7:27 am

I believe what you’re fed as a kid effects how you feed your own kids, but what’s interesting is HOW it effects you. If you were raised on frozen dinners, do you make sure your kids get fresh homemade every night? And if you were raised on homemade, do you go down the path of serving up chips and doughnuts? Or do you stay with what was familiar? It’s just like watching parents smoke or physical abuse in the home. Some are smart enough to break the cycle, and some just fall in the same footsteps because they don’t know any better.


Nancy May 7, 2009 at 7:03 am

I never use to read labels until I had kids. Those food manufacturers certainly know the power of high-fructose corn syrup. There really is something in that ingredient that makes your kids “addicted” to it. Now I always read labels and if HFCS is in the top 5 ingredients, I don’t buy it.


Paul May 7, 2009 at 6:58 am

My mom cooked almost every night, but the meals were plain; there was not a lot of diversity in the flavor and ingredients. Every night found my parents, brother, and me wrapped around a tiny little table. (I was always fascinated with how fast my dad could eat. A machine, I tell you.) Getting married and having kids, I know the value of the family time and its effect on eating habits. I’m convinced part of the reason Haley and Trevor try new things is because I do, and they see that.

A broad spectrum of food and tastes is a wonderful thing. Amy has expanded my perspective of taste, no question. But, I believe it starts with the time at the table, sitting and talking, and eating the same foods. The communal sense of “supper” is attractive to even the smallest children. They like to be a part of it.


Cheryl May 7, 2009 at 6:38 am

I think what you eat as a kid has a great impact on what you like in later years. I recall everything I ate growing up was from a can or box. My mother didn’t cook. It took me forever just to appreciate the taste of a piece of fruit without pouring a ton of sugar on top.


Lisa May 6, 2009 at 10:17 pm

I was sort of raised on “junk” food and I absolutely believe it contributed to a weight problem as I got older. I’ve since conquered that, but I’m very aware of it now that I have my own family. One of the things I did was not give my kids any juice until they were around 2. That way they learned to drink water and milk. And I’m committed to not letting them have any soda until they are in their teens! Well, maybe not that old, but…


Mel May 6, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I try to buy organic whenever I can. It’s much more expensive, but it seems worth it. Of course, I also think that I’m getting sucked into the media hype, and it probably doesn’t make a bit of difference. I wasn’t raised on anything organic and I’m perfectly healthy today.


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